While Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein may be the most well-known Victorian-era horror story written by a woman, it’s far from the only one. Writers like Edith Nesbit, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Margaret Strickland, while active later in the 19th Century, were all heavily influenced by Shelley’s gothic novel, while pushing the genre in new directions with their own unique visions. Kymera Press, publisher of comics exclusively by women creators, is paying tribute to some of Shelley’s lesser-known contemporaries with the series Mary Shelley Presents. The publisher has released three issues so far, with a fourth completed but not yet published, and a collection of all four issues currently being crowdfunded via Kickstarter.
Mary Shelley Presents is the idea of creators Debbie Lynn Smith and Nancy Holder. The anthology series adapts stories by Nesbit, Strickland, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Amanda Edwards, with Shelley herself and her famous monstrous creation serving as ‘hosts’ for the stories. Holder pens all of the adaptations, with artists Amelia Woo, Bobby Breed, Leonie O’Moore, Gwyn Tavares, and Anna Giovannini providing visuals for the tales. As the Kickstarter campaign for Mary Shelley Presents enters its final days, the project is nearly 75% funded, with rewards like script reviews by Smith and Holder, and the chance to be drawn onto a custom version of the first issue’s cover still remaining.
The Beat chatted with Smith and Holder about why Mary Shelley Presents is a project they were drawn to, the process of adapting prose tales for comics, and which stories they’re most excited for people to discover.
The Beat: It’s talked about a little in the Kickstarter story, but what about Mary Shelley Presents made it a project that both of you felt needed to be made?
Nancy Holder: Debbie and I talked about doing a graphic novel of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein for the 200th anniversary of the first publication of the novel (January 1, 1818) but there were so many sequential art versions out already, and it would have been an enormous undertaking (and a huge financial risk!) Then Debbie suggested Victorian ghost stories written by women, and I suggested titling the series Mary Shelley Presents. We both got that tingle of YES! and that was that.
Debbie Lynn Smith: The primary mission of Kymera Press is to support women in comics, so this project was a perfect fit for us. Nancy and I had wanted to work together for a long time. I wanted to do something for the 200th anniversary of Frankenstein, but didn’t want to revisit the novel; it’s been adapted a multitude of times. I’m a huge fan of the Crypt Keeper, so when we hit on this idea like Nancy, we got that tingle of YES!
The Beat: How did you go about selecting the stories to feature? Were there many female-written gothic horror tales to choose from?
Holder: Debbie and I have both looked for stories, and she has found some great ones. The more we’ve looked, the more we have found. That’s the amazing thing about woman writers—there were plenty of them, and they were prolific. And they made livings as professional writers. They simply haven’t been curated and honored the way their male counterparts have.
Smith: We both read and read and read some more. Nancy was also the queen of research. Once we settled on a story, she would research each author for the Mary Shelley and her creature’s introduction. As long as we could find an image, we show the author’s grave in their issue.
The Beat: Were there any stories you couldn’t include, for one reason or another? Are you saving things for future issues?
Holder: I hired a Russian translator to work on a short story by Zinaida Gippius, who, by the way, led an incredibly colorful life. I could see all this amazing art, as she wrote it during Russia’s “Silver Age” of art—I wanted to start the story in what I call “music box” Russian art (what you see on lots of lacquer ware) and then once the strange being referred to as “the imp” shows up, move into Silver Age art. It seemed perfect for sequential art! But the story itself was very abstract and we just couldn’t make it work. I was very sad to put it aside.
Smith: There were other great stories, [like] The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. This is an incredibly creepy story, but it plays out in one room on the wall and didn’t have the visual element that we look for in creating comics. Sometimes the story, while excellent in prose, is not suited for comic form. We were looking for something with a bit of action and visual interest.
We have collected four supernatural stories for this 200-page book, and now we’re turning to science fiction stories for the next four issues. Nancy is working on the first one.
The Beat: Nancy, how did you approach the adaptations? Were there any areas where you needed to make cuts or changes to the original stories in adapting them for the comics format?
Holder: Knowing that we were going to reprint the text of each story after the adaptation, I felt a bit constrained at first and thought I had to exactly mirror the story. But Debbie suggested I cut the opening of “The Old Nurse’s Story” and I realized I had the freedom to alter the stories. So I have cut and combined elements and I’ve always looked for something to emphasize beyond the supernatural—the subtext, as we say.
For example, in “Man-size in Marble,” the husband withholds valuable information from his wife because he doesn’t want to frighten her. This choice leads to tragic consequences. In “Monsieur Maurice,” a little girl learns about loyalty and bravery in the midst of a haunting. I will say that several reviews have complimented us on our pacing, and that makes me so happy. I point to the excellent craft books by Scott McCloud, Dennis O’Neil, and Brian Michael Bendis, where I learned to write comic book scripts.
Smith: Nancy was also relieved when I told her not to kill the dog in Monsieur Maurice. I promised my fans long ago I would never kill the dog!
The Beat: Which story are each of you most excited for people to discover, and why?
Holder: I’m looking forward to adapting a story by Mary Shelley herself. But in our current batch, I would say that “Monsieur Maurice” really resonates with me. The story opens with Mary and the Creature looking at the head of Rameses II in the British Museum. I looked at that exact same head a year ago. Mary’s husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, wrote “Ozymandius” after seeing the head–and getting a nasty review for one of his other poems. As a writer, I can relate to that!
Smith: I’m a huge fan of Elizabeth Gaskell‘s The Old Nurse’s Tale. Who doesn’t love a good ghost story? I’m one of those people who hate to look out their window at night because of what might be staring in. This story plays on this fear beautifully. Like Nancy, I’m also excited about adapting science fiction stories in our next trade paperback.
The Beat: Is there anything else either of you want to add about this project, to try and persuade people who might be on the fence about backing it?
Holder: The most wonderful discoveries while working on this project is meeting people who are fans of Victorian women writers and have given us suggestions or edited excellent anthologies featuring these women. We’ve had lively, fun discussions, and I really appreciate their support. They understand that our beloved bookshelves are missing half the books that should be there! This circle includes: Lisa Morton and Les Klinger; Melissa Edmunson; Johnny Mains; Grady Hendrix, and many others (please forgive me if I’ve neglected to mention you!) Now I’m getting suggestions for wonderful, quirky, science fiction stories. Did you know that Mary Shelley herself wrote a dystopian science fiction novel about a plague? Well, she did!
Smith: Beyond our rewards, we have so many freebies for anyone who pledges $20 or more. But I think our most exciting rewards are specifically for writers. Nancy Holder is a five-time Bram Stoker award winner and a New York Times bestselling author. She’s offered a reward tier of either a short story or a comic book script critique. My graphic novel Gates of Midnight won the Irwin Award for best graphic novel. I’m also a Scribe award nominee for my audio drama, Dark Shadows: The Lost Girl. I’m also offering critiques of comic book scripts and television scripts since I also have a television writing background. We have a lot of great rewards, but these are the most unique.
The Kickstarter campaign for the collected edition of Mary Shelley Presents ends next Wednesday, March 11th, at 11:59 PM PDT.